How did Minneapolis schools use taxpayer money to settle discrimination claims without taxpayers knowing?

The Minneapolis Public Schools district has repeatedly taken steps to conceal lucrative settlements with employees who had accused the district of discrimination and retaliation, according to district documents obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES.

The district has paid out more than $750,000 since 2013 to settle more than a dozen such claims— including nearly $250,000 to settle allegations that the district retaliated against whistleblowers.

A review of board agendas and meeting minutes during that same time show the district released few details about the settlements in public meetings— a pattern that Don Samuels, a former school board member in Minneapolis, calls a "ridiculous" and direct attempt to hide taxpayer-funded payouts from the taxpayers. In the majority of cases analyzed by 5 INVESTIGATES, no information was released at all.

The legal settlements, which have gone largely un-reported for years, were obtained through a series of requests under the state’s open records laws.

Superintendent Ed Graff, who promised transparency when he was hired in 2016, refused to be interviewed about how such payouts are disclosed to the public.

In a statement, a district spokesperson said that anyone can access the data through a public records request and that the district "makes no attempt to hide this data or reduce its accessibility."

However, the majority of the legal settlements include non-disclosure agreements or clauses that prevent anyone from contacting the media.

MPS paid Maria Mason, a former Director of Employee Relations, $90,000 after she alleged employment discrimination. The agreement includes a clause where both sides agree not to contact the media and exactly what to say if contacted by a reporter.

"How can you tell someone they can’t talk to the media?," said Art Johnston, a former school board member in Duluth who spent years advocating for more transparency in school districts. "Why are they hiding this information?"

The largest payout— $190,000 in 2018 to settle claims of retaliation against a whistleblower— included a full confidentiality clause that prevented either party from releasing any additional information.

This settlement agreement with MPS employee Jody Schieffer includes a full confidentiality agreement. The district paid her $190,000 to make her claim of whistleblower retaliation go away.

The majority of the settlements were not disclosed in public meetings because they included payouts of less than $50,000 and did not require board approval, according to the district’s general counsel.

The district gives much broader authority to its general counsel to sign off on such agreements compared to the city of Minneapolis where any settlement exceeding $1,000 must be approved by the city council.

More transparency at city hall

At city hall, approved settlements are regularly posted in agendas and minutes and include the names of the parties involved, a description of the dispute that is being settled and, in many cases, links to supporting documentation such as court records.

When the school board votes on a settlement, board records often omit even the most basic details, such as the employee’s name. In addition, the board approves the settlements as part of a consent agenda— a wide-ranging list of issues that are voted on in a matter of seconds with little, or no, public discussion.

Samuels, who served on the school board and the city council in Minneapolis, says rolling settlement agreements into the consent agenda is a deliberate attempt to hide the payouts.

"It would be fair to say that because most people don’t look at (the consent agenda)," Samuels said. "I would say it’s part of the whole obfuscation that has happened over time."

Samuels defended the legal strategy of entering into settlement agreements, saying it saves the district in legal costs in the long run while also allowing the district to deny wrongdoing. He says the district does have to be careful about what information is released but says the board should "absolutely" be just as transparent as the city council.

Litigation offers rare insight

While the majority of settlements were signed off by the district before a lawsuit was ever filed, several deals were reached after employees initiated legal action in state or federal court— offering rare windows into what exactly was being alleged.

For example, in 2017, the district paid an employee $60,000 after she claimed in a lawsuit that the district violated her FMLA rights by stripping her job duties while she was on medical leave for hip surgery. That employee also received a $15,000 contract to develop language teachers in the district, as part of the deal.

In 2014, a woman in the district’s general counsel office settled for $85,000 after she sued for racial discrimination. The employee, who is black, said she was routinely tasked with doing work that should have been completed by higher-paid, white employees.

Absent court records, the public can learn little about what led to the settlement even if they request public records. That’s because most settlements do not include any description whatsoever. The district only confirmed the nature of the complaints after 5 INVESTIGATES pressed for additional details. The district declined to release additional records related to the settlements, saying they are considered private data under state law.

Ryan Raiche can be reached by phone at 651-642-4544 or by email here.

Joe Augustine can be reached by phone at 651-642-4524 or by email here.